THOSE of you who have followed Scottish rugby over the years can be forgiven a degree of scepticism but, on Wednesday afternoon in Aberdeen, the SRU ushered in another new era for youth rugby with the opening of the first of four BT Academies.
Originally the SRU had no academies, then four were set up in the four regions (Edinburgh, Glasgow, Caledonia and the Borders) before they, like the pro-teams, were reduced to just two. Those academies were then integrated within the twin pro-teams of Edinburgh and Glasgow. Then they were centralised into one academy based at Murrayfield before being re-allocated to the pro-teams, where they currently reside. Nineteen years into the professional era and Murrayfield is still trying to wrestle one of rugby’s foundation stones into place.
Now the SRU, thanks to generous funding from BT Sport, have promised to throw £1.2 million per annum at four new BT regional academies and have them up and running by the end of next season. But why should this latest initiative be any different from all the others that have gone before?
“The initiative that we have started now with the national coaches coaching the academy, once a week, [is a first],” replies the SRU’s head of performance rugby Scott Johnston. “The one thing I’ve noticed in Scotland is that our players aren’t young chronologically, compared to other countries, their competitive maturity isn’t what it needs to be so we need to have a clear understanding of where the talent pool is and having mature coaches coach these kids. It’s a good initiative because it starts to set benchmarks for these academies.”
It’s not the clearest answer you could hope for, with Johnson speaking ten to the dozen, his mouth occasionally outpacing his train of thought. He rightly underlines that greater competition at youth level is the secret to success, which we will return to, and his point about the national coaches is well made. Indeed it has already started. Monday evenings see Vern Cotter, Jon Humphreys and Duncan Hodge roll up their sleeves and run the rule over the best of the academy talent. The hands-on role for the national coaching staff means that any stand-out player will be fast-tracked quick-time.
Australian Johnson is sketchy about numbers but he insists that the current elite development programme (EDP) players will become part of the new academies. There are currently 11 EDP players at Edinburgh and 14 at Glasgow so we can probably expect roughly the same number in each tier of the new academies with perhaps fewer girls, not that Johnson is giving anything away.
“On numbers I won’t put a limit,” he insists. “I want it hard to get into. At the moment, if you look at the two pro teams, they already have an academy, its called the EDP, that’s been split away as an independent body and now sits on top of the academy. The EDP now becomes the top of the academy tree rather than the bottom of the professional tree.
“There will be three levels. [He omits to say so but the ground floor will consist of 14-16 year olds]. The 16-18 year olds and then the ones who will go into the pro programme (ie players graduating to the EDP after signing a contract). There are about 14 at the moment, and so, hopefully, we have the quality with the criteria being: kids who are most likely to play pro rugby or better.”
Scotland competes manfully on the rugby field but it will always struggle when it comes to the numbers game and, with that in mind, Johnson is determined to cast the net as wide as possible in an effort to land some big fish.
“We have to add to the environment and improve it and sometimes it is our risk as a business to take on guys who don’t have experience of our game but are genetically gifted, through height, through speed, through something.
“The role of the academy is to target a variety of talent that may not have yet played the game.
“Football, yes, because you get a lot of backs but it’s making people aware [of rugby]. Genetic requirements for our sport are obvious and we may target bigger people, they did it in rowing with success, we may offer a chance for people that we feel have genetic gifts. You have the combative sports, the judos where the cross-over would be quite good. I’d like to have a look at domestic sports, shinty and things like that, there are kids in that, it’s a tough sport. I’ll try anything!”
Shinty, a sport which seems to produce whippets rather than rottweilers and boasts only 1,500 adult players, may offer thin pickings but Johnson’s willingness to leave no stone unturned in search of big, athletic lumps to bolster rugby’s ranks is to be applauded.
One player made a similar switch across the Irish Sea. Darren Sweetnam was a hurling star of the Gaelic Athletic Association (GAA) before changing tack and shirt to appear as an occasional wing/full-back for Munster but even he had plenty of youth rugby under his belt, including a World Championship appearance for Ireland’s U20s. Taking up rugby in your mid-to-late teens rarely leads to adult success. The experiment has been tried and the USA Eagles still struggle to compete.
While the academies can’t but help Scotland produce better players or, more accurately, produce better players at an earlier age, it doesn’t address the main short-coming that Johnson highlights at the top of this article…the need for greater intensity of competition on a regular rather than occasional basis. These new academies will play as teams but only for occasional matches because players are expected to turn out regularly for their clubs and/or schools.
“They [the academies] will play matches,” says Johnson. “We’ll do this progressively, in the first year we’ll play four or five matches. The academy itself won’t be a team. We are not going to pick on position, we’ll pick on the talent pool.
“History tells you, over the years – and I don’t know why, that certain regions provide certain body types. Cornwall produces a lot of front rowers, Queensland back home produced a lot of locks so, if you restrict yourself with a team, that is not what the academy is about, it’s about getting kids that are most likely to play pro rugby. The selection process won’t be about picking a team. We have to acknowledge that we are not where we want to be. I have always said that, as a target, I would like Scotland to be a top-seven nation. If we are a top-seven nations then we are there or thereabouts. If you are in the top seven you can beat anyone on any given day and you are regularly in the contest. If we are top seven across the board we are in a pretty good place. That is where we need to get to and if we can achieve that regularly I think that’s a pretty good place to be.”
The Aussie readily admits that Scotland has it all to do: “We haven’t got the depth or the competition or the depth of competition.” But no matter, he insists: “We have the right people involved and there is the right energy and you can do anything with the will so it’s a pretty good place to start.”